Alcohol – the good and the bad news

Last Friday’s Irish Times (24 March 2017) contained no fewer than three articles about alcohol: a surge in teenage alcohol related admissions to hospitals was reported in 2016; moderate alcohol consumption may cut our risk of heart disease; and, why alcohol may be affecting our sleep, health and fitness.

These types of report are not new.  Periodically there is comment on the findings of the latest studies, and the pendulum swings once again between dire warnings about the negative effects (increased risk of anaemia, cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, hypertension, infectious disease, liver disease, nerve damage, pancreatitis and seizures, not to mention accidents, high risk behaviour, child neglect, domestic abuse and workplace absenteeism) and other advice that suggests it is positively beneficial in moderate amounts (reducing the risk of diabetes, dementia, arthritis, enlarged prostate, osteoporosis, gallbladder disease, kidney cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and thyroid disease).

The issue, it would seem, is whether people know (and care) what moderation is (and act accordingly).  But what is ‘moderation’ and is it the same for everyone?  In Ireland moderate drinking for women is 5.5 pints and 8.5 pints for men, although the HSE states that there is no safe level of drinking, and other European countries have significantly different ideas about what is moderate.  Arguably, therefore, ‘moderation’ is a movable feast.  But even if we could agree on a definition of moderation, its still abundantly obvious that alcohol tolerance is an individual thing.  For example, the amount we can tolerate varies according to our general health status and age – what you handled as a 21 year old with nothing more than a mild headache may keep you in bed for two days at 71.  And ask any menopausal women what alcohol does to her sleep.  Even our race seems to make a difference – the Japanese are famously unable to hold as much alcohol as westerners.

So, what does Chinese Medicine have to say about alcohol?

Well, actually, it says much the same as modern western medical advice.  What’s fascinating is just how similar – in fact, prescient – that advice is, given that it was written hundreds of years ago without the benefit of modern science.  Take, for example, Sun Simiao, the famous 7th century physician, also known as China’s King of Medicine.  He writes:

Do not eat excessively, too much food causes accumulation, drinking too much causes phlegm…chronic alcohol drinking rots the intestines and stomach, soaks the marrow and steams the tendons, harms the spirit and reduces life span.

‘Phlegm’, in Chinese medicine is a kind of substance which can be excess weight (think beer bellies) or tumours (cancer). The effects on the ‘intestines and stomach’, to the ancient Chinese, implied adverse implications for energy while those on the ‘marrow’ and ‘tendons’ implied impairment of the bones and the ligaments that bind them. All of which reflects modern scientific findings about alcohol impairment of nutrient absorption, leading to poor energy, and osteoporosis.

Clearly, then, the Chinese themselves liked a drink, and it seems from archaeological evidence that their fondness may have begun sometime between 7000-5700BCE.  Alcohol was made from fermented rice, honey and fruit (hawthorn berries and/or grapes) and was consumed both for pleasure and for medicinal purposes.  However, the idea that alcohol was beneficial to health does not seem to have arisen until about 1100BCE.  Another Chinese author, writing in the 7th/8th centuries CE observes that –

Alcoholic drinks are the ultimate distilled flavour of the five grains. They can be of great benefit, but they can also diminish people’s health.  Thus all good things in life are hard to control and easy to overdo.  You have to be careful to do just what is right for nourishing your inner nature.

That last sentence in particular sums up the matter of using our own judgement about what is beneficial or harmful for us as individuals.

Elsewhere in Chinese medicinal literature it is noted that alcohol moves the blood (and therefore Qi), thereby promoting circulation, and that it is warming in nature, and hence beneficial to those who feel the cold.  But the corollary, for those who are already warm-blooded, is that excessive amounts add more heat to the body resulting in a flushed red face, thirst, a thick yellow coating on the tongue, dark urine and, of course, irritability (think that day-after-the-night-before appearance/feeling, and fights outside the local pub or nightclub)

So, there it is; the benefits and perils of alcohol described for us hundreds of years ago by the ancient Chinese, and again by the Irish Times last Friday.  The human race would seem to be slow learners, or perhaps we just like to verify things for ourselves?

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